Everything’s coming up roses …

… Except the roses. And the roses look great, but it’s a bit too early for them to bloom. I cut most of the roses back severely a year ago, so I’ve not pruned them at all this year, and they’re covered in buds, ready to bloom in a few weeks.

At every turn there are several somethings blooming, and late in April and into May the gardener can easily convince himself that he has created a masterpiece. The reality is obvious by mid-summer, but for today there is every reason to be entirely satisfied.

I am seduced by flowers like everyone else, but when I wander about the garden I am just as pleased to see an interesting bud, or an emerging leaf. There are two Acrocona spruce (Picea abies ‘Acrocona’, above) in the garden, and through much of the year these are awkwardly branched, not weeping, but not distinctly upright. Most people would not give a second glance to this ungainly selection of Norway spruce. But, in late April raspberry red cones begin to form at the branch tips, so that the spruce appears to be in bloom from a distance (below).

Since I have been delayed by rambling on about Japanese maples the past week, the number of blooms in the garden is greater than can be fit into an entry of reasonable length. So, today we’ll feature the blooming shrubs of late April, and a few days later we’ll cover the perennials. By that time there will be more blooms, so I don’t expect to catch up until June, or later.

The camellias have been disappointing this spring, except for the autumn blooming ‘Winter’s Interlude’ that flowered better than any of the spring flowering varieties. Redbuds and dogwoods bloomed wonderfully, and it appears that the azaleas (Azalea ‘Delaware Valley White, above) will do the same.

The fragrant blooms of Koreanspice and Burkwood viburnums have passed, but now the non-fragrant but splendid Maresi doublefile (Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum, above) and Pragense viburnums (Viburnum x pragense, below) are in bloom. In the garden both have been shaded a tad more than is to their liking as the forest’s edge has spread through the years, but they continue to flower.

The Chinese Snowball viburnum (Viburnum macrocephalum ‘Sterile’, below) is just beginning to flower on the shaded south side of the house, and the blooms are not diminished at all by the lack of sunlight. The large, hydrangea-like flowers begin a light green, and as the flower head expands the color lightens to cream, and then to white. The snowball viburnum grows taller than ten feet, and nearly as wide, with a loose habit that is too coarse to be a centerpiece, but they are valuable when planted to the side or back of the garden.

Perhaps this will be the year when this overgrown shrub is cut back by several feet. This task has been on my wife’s to-do list for several years. I cut the spiraled topiary boxwood that was obstructing the path to the back deck into a tight cone a week ago, and if I chop back the snowball viburnum I might return to good graces with her after chopping out so much of the back lawn earlier in the spring. One can only hope.

Anyway, on to other blooming shrubs. I am careful to note when Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii x major ‘Mount Airy’, above) should be blooming since it is planted along the outside of the north border and cannot be seen from the inside of the garden. There are many plants that are enjoyed by the neighbors, and only on occasion by me when I push my way through the dense plantings. I mowed a narrow strip of lawn along the border years in the past, but much of it is now so shady that grass doesn’t grow, and the neighbor mows the little bit that does.

Back to the southern border (which is deeply shaded by mature maples and poplars) there are several shrubs that bloom late in April into May. The flowers of the Red Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus pavia, above) are a little ragged once they have opened, and a day and two prior to opening is when they are best. For years the buckeye was a squat shrub, but in the past two years it has decided to grow more upright. Still, there are enough low branches to enjoy the blooms.

Only a few feet from the buckeye are three native, red flowering sweetshrubs (Calycanthus floridus, above), and a few paces further a yellow flowered selection (C. floridus ‘Athens’, below). I am rarely able to smell even the strongest of scented plants, but on recent evenings the sweetshrubs were quite pleasant. The blooms are an unusual red-brown, and I’m certain they will never gain more popular acceptance except to native plant lovers.

Oops, I promised that I would not drag on so long today, but I see that I have, so I’ll end today without a lot of chatter, but with a photo of the blueberries (below) in bloom. Of course, you know what blueberries do, and in theory each flower will turn to a plump fruit, but I am resigned that the birds will get nearly every berry from the five shrubs that I grow. I could net them to keep the birds out, but I could do a lot of things that I don’t bother to get around to.


Twenty-one and counting – part two

So, you’re looking to add a Japanese maple to your garden, or to add another one or two to your budding collection. There are many fine choices in the garden centers, and many dozens more available through mail order nurseries if you’e willing to start with a little guy. There are hundreds of named cultivars, and more introduced each year. Most are worthy plants, but if you’re limited to fifteen or twenty that will fit in your garden, or only one or two, which should you select?

The selection process for my garden was more haphazard than planned. An interesting Japanese maple would arrive in the garden centers, and spur of the moment I’d just have to have it. I’ve purchased two Lion’s Head maples (Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’, above) five years apart, both on impulse. The first was a little fellow, barely taller than two feet, and scrawny with only a few branches with leaves tightly bunched at the tips so that it was practically unsellable, except to me. It has slowly grown into a shrubby, eight foot tall tree. The second was a tree damaged in transit across country from an Oregon maple grower, and though a few branches were broken it has grown to match the older tree.

I have no reservations about purchasing damaged trees, so long as the injury is cosmetic and the price is right. I have visited Japanese maple nurseries in Oregon for thirty years, and had seen a Golden Full Moon maple (Acer shirasawanum aureum, below) only a few times, and the slow growing trees were far out of my price range. Several years ago I recognized one in a field of one and two-of-a-kinds that had been left behind because they were missing a branch or had suffered damage from rabbits or mowers. Most of the trees in the this field would later be uprooted and discarded, but I saw that the injury to the trunk would eventually heal over, so the next spring it was delivered and planted in my garden. The deep scar has not yet fully healed, but the tree is otherwise healthy and growing vigorously.

To assist you in selecting the appropriate tree for your garden we’ll start by breaking the Japanese maples in my garden into two basic catergories, weeping and upright growers. There are further distinctions that can divide them into smaller groups such as color (red, green, yellow, and variegated) and leaf shape (palmate or dissectum), but the more important consideration for most people is the growth habit. If you care to study Japanese maples in greater detail there is no better reference than Japanese Maples by J. D. Vertrees.

Weeping Japanese maples –

Weeping maples are those with pendulous branching, and most will have finely dissected leaves in contrast to the broader palmate foliage of most upright growers. Weeping varieties will generally grow shorter than upright types, though this can be deceiving because branches often cascade to the ground and the amount of real estate they cover can be far greater than much taller trees. I have planted an upright ‘Bloodgood’ maple within five feet of a walkway, and its branching doesn’t create a conflict at all. A weeping ‘Crimson Queen’ was planted the same distance from the walk, and after ten years it was clear as it grew in width that either the walk or the maple must be moved.

There are numerous weeping cultivars, and many are indistinguishable from one another. There are different leaf forms and color, more open or compact branching, and some are faster growing than others. I have two red leafed, weeping dissectum maples in my garden, ‘Crimson Queen’ and ‘Tamukeyama’ (above), and a green leaf dissectum ‘Viridis’ (A. palmatum dissectum’Viridis’ ), which is sort of a catch all for most green leafed weeping cultivars. In my garden there are many more upright types than weepers because there is more diversity, but if you are looking to plant a weeping Japanese maple you can not go wrong with these common varieties.

Upright Japanese maples

Most upright growing Japanese maples have palmate leaves that are not dissected as finely as weeping types, though I referred in the first chapter to the two ‘Seriyu’ maples planted at the front of my house that are twenty feet tall and wide with green, dissected leaves. While foliage is not as delicate on cultivars with palmate leaves, there are a variety of leaf shapes and forms that make each unique, and I have planted eighteen upright Japanese maples in an array of colors and leaf shapes.

There are a number of red leafed, upright Japanese maples that are not dramatically different than the common ‘Bloodgood’, though all are fine trees. ‘Bloodgood’ holds its red color longer into the summer’s heat, but Trompenburg (above) and Burgundy Lace are beautiful maples with more open branching, and well worth growing. I also grow two maples that are witch’s brooms of ‘Bloodgood’. ‘Skeeter’s Broom’ and ‘Shaina’ (below) are very compact, bush-like forms of ‘Bloodgood’, grown from mutations in branching that form broom-like, dense branching. When rooted from cuttings, or when grafted the broom-like form is retained so that an upright growing maple is suitable for small properties.

I have just planted another compact growing maple, but ‘Shirazz’ (A. palmatum ‘Gwen’s Rose Delight’, below) has a narrow border of cream surrounding its ‘Bloodgood’ red leaves. The variegation fades in late spring, but the color stands out through the spring. There are two other maples with variegated foliage in the garden, the slow growing ‘Butterfly’, and the more vigorous ‘Orido Nishiki’ (both scattered about this page). Both have leaves with combined colors of green, cream, and pink, and one leaf is rarely colored the same as another.

Beyond ‘Seriyu’ there are other green leafed maples that are quite interesting because of the unique shape of their leaves, or with the brilliant red bark of ‘Sangu Kaku’ (below) that is most prominent in the winter after leaves have dropped. ‘Lion’s Head’ maple (A. palmatum ‘Shishigashira’) is an odd sort with crinkled leaves, and is sometimes called ‘Parsley leafed’ maple. It’s autumn foliage color is outstanding, as is ‘Okushimo’ maple, with leaves that curve upward. ‘Lion’s Head’ maple is slow, and shrub-like, while ‘Okushimo’ is taller and strictly vase shaped, unlike most maples that are more umbrella-shaped.

There are two Japanese maples in the garden with deeply dissected, threadlike leaves. Atrolineare (A. palmatum linearilobum ‘Atrolineare’, below) has narrow red leaves, and an open growing habit so that it barely shows up in a densely planted garden. Until you walk upon it, that is, and you are delighted by the lacy foliage. ‘Scolopendrifolium’ has green leaves that are slightly wider than those of ‘Atrolineare’, and the branching is more compact and vigorous.

The last two Japanese maples on this tour are not Acer palmatum cultivars. ‘Fern Leaf’ maple (Acer japonicum aconitifolium, below) is a broadly spreading, upright growing maple with large, finely dissected leaves, and with stunning autumn foliage color (my favorite in the autumn garden). This is another maple that I’ve grown from nearly a seedling, and it is one that I treasure. The other non-palmatum cultivar is the Golden Full Moon maple (A. shirasawanum aureum) referred to in the previous chapter. Newly emerging leaves are a bright yellow, and they fade only slightly in the summer heat. I have given this maple a bit of protection from the afternoon sun, so that its foliage does not burn and fade, and though I waited for years to plant this maple, my patience was richly rewarded.

Perhaps you have found a Japanese maple of interest here, and even with too brief a description you have settled on a choice or two. But, are you planting it in the right place? In the right soil, and sun exposure? My first concern is that the maple be given adequate space, since we want to avoid having to prune (butcher) the maple as it grows too large. I have planted too many plants in my garden too close, but the Japanese maples have been given more room to spread.

My second consideration is that the Japanese maple will perform better if planted in sun to part sun. In areas of the southeast with long, hot summers, maples will perform better with a bit of shade, in particular from the afternoon sun, but the best foliage color and growth results from more sun. Like most plants Japanese maples grow best in deep, moist, well drained soils, but since this is in short supply in most gardens, maples are quite content to grow in just about any soil so long as it is not constantly wet.

Many of the Japanese maples in our gardens originate in Oregon, and indeed the mild winters, cool summer nights, and low humidity are ideal for their growth. But, I have found that Japanese maples grow nearly as quickly in my hot, humid, mid-Atlantic garden as in Oregon, and only in the far southern states are temperatures inhospitable. For most parts of this country there is little reason for a garden not to have a Japanese maple, or twenty-one.

Please forgive my droning on and on. I’ve attempt to be brief, but it’s not the nature of the beast. In a few days I’ll return with photos of shrubs and perennials that have been blooming in this second half of April.

Twenty-one and counting

Twenty-two years ago the garden was begun in a simple fashion, with a few shrubs, two white flowering dogwoods, and two Japanese maples planted in the front of the house. A rudimentary bluestone path was constructed through the mud from the gravel drive to the front porch. The maples were common cultivars, ‘Crimson Queen’ (Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’, below), a red laceleaf with pendulous branching, and ‘Bloodgood’ (A. palmatum ‘Bloodgood’), a vigorous red leafed upright. Today, these remain the most popular selections in garden centers, and they have grown to become the visual anchors of my front garden.

The dogwoods were planted inside the front walk with the idea that as they grew visitors would walk under their branches to reach the front door. But, the slope from the street down to the house funneled rain water so that this area stayed too damp for the dogwoods. One died and the other was transplanted to a drier location outside the walk. To replace the dogwoods, two upright growing, green laceleaf ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maples (A. palmatum dissectum ‘Seriyu’, below) were selected, again with the idea that they would be pruned to form a canopy over the walk.

Today, the ‘Seriyu’ maples have grown to nearly twenty feet tall, and a bit wider. Good horticultural sense would dictate that the trees are planted far too close to the house, and indeed the branches destroy the window screens as they sway in the breeze. On a rainy day the long branches are weighed down so that visitors must stoop low to avoid being soaked, but on a dry day you walk in filtered sunlight beneath branches with finely dissected leaves just above your head. Precisely as I intended.

After the ‘Seriyu’ maples were planted the chronology becomes a bit foggier, but needless to say the numbers increased steadily until today there are twenty-one Japanese maples in the garden, not including the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of seedlings that pop up everywhere. Three maples were planted a few weeks ago despite my wife’s objection that there were too many already. I tell her that there’s plenty of space if only we could remove the small patch of lawn at the rear of the garden, and why not? The kids are grown and gone, and the only use for the property is my planting and wandering about.

Most of the maples in my garden could not be considered exotic, and few are rare, though many cultivars are not commonly found in gardens or for sale by any other than specialty growers. This is not a grand collection. I’m certain that more extensive collections can easily be found, with more splendid trees that are displayed more prominently. In this garden the trees are not labeled or tagged, and I regularly forget the names of several of the less common maples, just as I often can’t recall one coneflower or toad lily from another.

Before going further it should be said that despite the reputation they seem to have, Japanese maples are easy to grow, and many are much more vigorous than people suspect. I regularly see weeping dissectum types that have spread to obstruct walkways and patios, and in fact I had to move the large Crimson Queen maple ten years ago as it began to encroach on my front walk. I was too lazy to dig the rootball properly, so halfway through I wrapped a chain around the roots, hooked it to our car, and dragged the tree out of its hole. This is the appropriate time to warn “not to try this at home”, but the maple lived and today grows like a weed as it encroaches on our driveway. This is not a dainty tree, and I’ve found that maples will tolerate blazing sun or a bit more shade than you expect, bone dry, or damp so long as the ground dries occasionally. 

If there is a problem with Japanese maples, I’ve found that the wrong cultivar is too often planted where there is too little space. A boxwood or laurel can be hacked back to fit when it borders a walk or patio too closely, but try this with a Japanese maple and its form is ruined. So, we must first decide which maple is appropriate, and then give it adequate space. For most weeping cultivars (such as ‘Crimson Queen’) an area of ten by ten feet will barely accommodate its mature growth. Leave five or six feet between your maple and the nearest shrub or evergreen and fill the space with perennials such as liriope that can be moved as it grows wider.

When I return in a couple days for the second chapter we will explore the different types of maples by foliage type, by growth habit, and by leaf color until I’ve posted every photo and told every story. Perhaps you will find a  tree that you will treasure in your garden for the next twenty years.

Dogwoods and other April bloomers

I cannot recall a spring when blooms of the native dogwoods have been so magnificent. Perhaps this is because gardeners tend to remember their miseries and failures rather than successes, but in any case, the dogwoods are perfect this April.

Sadly, our native dogwoods is troubled by a variety of pests, so that it is recommended with a note of caution, but there is no more delightful tree in bloom, and autumn foliage color and berries are superb. Dogwoods occasionally suffer from black spot and powdery mildew in an abundantly wet spring, so these maladies are common, though rarely bothersome enough to fool with spraying to prevent. Problems with cankers and borers are not unusual in older trees, and can result in the tree’s demise. But, before I have discouraged you unnecessarily, I must say that I have planted a handful in my garden. None have died, several are twenty years old, and all are glorious.

I feel no need to analyze why the dogwoods are more lovely this year than others. No doubt there is a formula based upon weather conditions in late summer last year when the flower buds were set, and temperatures through the winter that have conspired to create ideal conditions for the blooms, but it is simpler just to enjoy.

Though our April weather has been less than ideal the garden is growing remarkably, and damage from February’s heavy snow is nearly forgotten. So long as I don’t look up at the broken and bent tops of the cryptomerias, that is. It is so much more pleasant to enjoy the serviceberry (white blooms, above), redbuds (above) and Carolina silverbell (below) than to worry about problems that are beyond the gardeners reach. The tops of the cryptomerias must be addressed eventually, but there is no need for that to be immediately.

Today, weeds are growing as quickly as the perennials in the damp soil, and the gardener is sometimes challenged to differentiate the two. As is usual each spring in this garden, there are dozens, possibly hundreds of Japanese maple seedlings popping up (below). I am always curious to see the form and color of their foliage since seedlings are often quite different from the parent tree, but they are becoming too numerous and in the next week or two I must pull them out so they don’t overtake the planting beds. I’ll pot a few up if they are worthy, but there will be more next year, and so the entire batch could end up in the compost pile.

Certainly I have gone on far too long about the flowering trees, but in the next few days I’ll move on to the blooming perennials and Japanese maples, including the three that are newly planted. The foliage of several of the maples has emerged fully, but a few others will take another warm day (Golden Full Moon maple, below).  


My young niece has an emphatic manner of saying “No!”, so that you are undeniably assured that this is the final answer, no matter the question. My wife adopted a similarly stern tone this winter whenever I excitedly told her my plans for the garden for the upcoming spring. Fortunately, I’m not easily discouraged.

Admittedly, I was a bit too enthusiastic in preparing the list of plants that I cannot live without this spring.. My problems began with a visit in the summer to a Japanese maple grower a half hour south of Portland, Oregon. The fields were full of choice maples, both odd varieties and common, and hundreds and thousands of each, all looking for a good home. They were big and beautiful, and if there was enough space I would have one (or more) of each.

My wife declared that there is no room, but after walking around for an hour (and then on a second trip back around) I decided that there is space for two maples. So, I purchased three, and figured that I’d become inspired where to plant the other once it was here. At this point you are likely to be shaking your head, and sympathizing with my overly practical wife. Of course she would rather spend our budget on new shades, or home repairs. I’ll agree that we need to discuss these expenditures before the house falls down, but there really should be no question about purchasing the maples.

In any case, I have brought the maples home, found spots for all three, and also a splendid little Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica) which is nicely tucked into a shady spot behind tall arborvitaes and a beautyberry and can hardly be noticed.

The new maples could not just be planted in the lawn, so of course I removed sod so that the trees were incorporated into larger beds. The Japanese maples were planted in three different areas of the garden, and the total of sod that was removed is probably no more than a few hundred square feet, but once the grass is gone there is plenty of open space that must be planted with something or the weeds will take over.

The filling of open space is what has led to the worst of my troubles, requiring several trips to the garden center, and a few mail order deliveries of oddities that were not otherwise obtainable. Plants are arriving one day after the other, and I fear that perhaps I’ve pushed a bit too far. But, I tell my wife, just wait until you see the garden in May.

Meanwhile, there are more blooms in the garden every day, and there is no need to wait. Both Carlesi and Burkwood  (Viburnum x burkwoodi, above) fragrant viburnums are flowering. The blooms are quite similar, and I’m certain that I could not tell one from the other, except that Burkwood is tall and open and Carlesi is more compact. Both grow at the edge of the forest, so their growth is more open than if  planted in full sun.

In wandering about the garden yesterday I was drawn to the sweet scent of the viburnums, and then again further up the slope by sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus, above) with its odd reddish brown flowers. Both red and yellow flowering sweetshrub are planted in shade that is a little too dark for their liking, and so they flower a bit late, and grow more open, but their bloom is not bothered at all.

In April it is not possible to walk through the garden and not be delighted, and encouraged to push the boundaries to plant more and remove more lawn. Even at the risk hearing the dreaded “NO!”.

Gone native

Yesterday’s strong thunderstorms soaked the garden so that there was standing water at the lower end of the back garden. Otherwise, there was no damage, though some of the pine bark chunks that mulch the new bed areas were washed out. I use the large chunk mulch because it is long-lasting, so long as it doesn’t float downstream. Smaller bark chips, fresh wood chips, and shredded bark break down more quickly and are better for the soil, but I resist mulches that must be replenished annually.

The driveway and lawn areas were littered with magnolia blossoms this morning, their farewell until March next year. The creamy yellow ‘Elizabeth’ magnolia (above) has just begun to bloom, and though a few flowers were blown off in the gale, most will remain for another week. Elizabeth is an upright grower, and faster than most of the deciduous magnolias.

The March blooming pears, magnolias, and cherries are native to Asia, but in April the most common flowering trees are native to states east of the Mississippi. Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis, above) has been in bloom since the last week of March, and often I wonder as I drive  whether white blooms poking their heads from the forest’s edge are serviceberries or flowering pears that have escaped cultivation. Usually, they are pears that are encroaching on the native trees.

The eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis, above) begins its floral display along mid-Atlantic area roadsides early in April, and if temperatures aren’t too warm it might remain in bloom for three weeks. In my garden there are two red leafed ‘Forest Pansy’ redbuds, two variegated leaf ‘Silver Cloud’, a weeping “Lavender Twist’, and yellow leafed ‘Hearts of Gold’. All are blooming, and if there was adequate space I would add more.

The native dogwood (Cornus florida, above) usually begins to flower a week or two after the redbuds, but this year they followed by only a few days. In my garden the variegated leafed, red flowering Cherokee Sunset set no buds in late summer, so there are no blooms this spring, but the two white flowering dogwoods are blooming heavily. Last year the weeping white dogwood had only a few flowers, but it is blooming more robustly today.

The hybrid crosses between the American native dogwood (Cornus florida) and the Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa), and between the eastern and Pacific dogwood (Cornus nutalli) will bloom early in May, and will be followed by the Chinese dogwoods later in the month. So, there will be blooming dogwoods in the garden from mid April into June. All are splendid trees, suitable for gardens of nearly any size.

For several years after planting the Carolina Silverbell (Halesia carolina, above) I was disappointed by its sparse blooms, but eventually it has won me over with its pendulous, white, bell shaped flowers. Planted at the forest’s edge it grows with an open, irregular habit, though I would expect it to be more compact growing in full sun.

Though the early blooming magnolias and cherries are delightful, and most appreciated in welcoming spring, there are no finer trees than the native flowering trees of April.

Green Day

Whenever there are a few moments between rainstorms this weekend I will need to spray the daylilies and a few other choice perennials with deer repellent. Many perennials will not have enough foliage until late in April, but the mixed border of daylilies along the lower side of the swimming pond has been nipped a bit already, so the time has come to protect them from further injury.

I have neglected to mention it earlier, but in our family yesterday was celebrated as Green Day, a tradition from my wife’s childhood observed on the first day of spring when you look out the window and  see nothing but green. Of course, Green Day is made easier when your home backs up to forest (as our’s does) rather than looking over rows of houses, but the day is as easily celebrated if the view along your route to the office is suddenly green.

When I returned home in the evening yesterday rain showers were threatening and clouds hung low, but the light was bright so that there was a glow about the garden as often is seen following a summer thunderstorm when the sun breaks through dark clouds. Trees and shrubs were bursting into leaf, with greens and reds exceptionally vivid in the soft light.

The foliage of Japanese maples has emerged suddenly, and if you are fortunate to have one planted in your garden (or two dozen as in mine), then you must drop what you’re doing at the moment and rush out to see the unfolding leaves and delicate blooms that dangle beneath (above and below). Of course, your garden is likely to be warmer or colder than mine, so the appropriate day to enjoy this splendid scene was last week, or perhaps tomorrow.

If Green Day is marked by a single event, in this garden that would be that the flowers of Dogtooth Violets (or Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum, below) opened yesterday. A contrarian would argue that the redbuds make a bigger show along the roadsides, and even in this garden where there are six that have been planted and scattered native trees along the forest’s edge, and who am I to debate the matter, except that I treasure the tiny woodland lilies.

I am quite certain that the Koreanspice viburnum (Viburnum carlesi, below) did not just pop into bloom yesterday, but I had not noticed it while roaming about on the weekend. Much of the border along the forest’s edge is still bare, and the fragrant flowers stood out as I was wandering before scrambling back to the house as the rain began.